LeAnne Martin
Christians in the Arts

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Phillip Spears, Photographer: Being Creative an Act of Obedience

Photographer Phillip Spears came to faith at the age of 15. He has a BS in Design from Illinois Institute of Technology in 1983. Since then, he's been working as a commercial photographer in Atlanta. He specializes in educational marketing and annual reports. He and his wife, Dr. Dana Spears, have three children, Anna Kate, Maggie, and Benjamin.Make sure you check out his website for some gorgeous images.

LeAnne: I like to start at the beginning because I'm fascinated by how an artist grows and develops. How did you get started in photography? What draws you to it?

I came to photography largely against my will. Although it is one of the few things I've been naturally good at since a young age, my long term interests were in several other areas, mostly the ministry. When I was ten, I got a Polaroid Swinger camera so I was able to take pictures instantly. Four or five years later, my older brother, who in my mind could do everything well and easily, got a 35 mm camera but he couldn't make it work. I could and so I latched onto photography for some identity. In high school, I was one of the yearbook photographers. I came to faith at about 15 and earnestly wanted to do something intellectual for the faith like preach. Throughout high school and college and early career turmoil, though, my friends continued to encourage me and tell me that photography was what I should be doing.

I thought I wanted to be a civil engineer--I had a romantic notion about what that entailed --so I went to Georgia Tech for one quarter. I hated it. Then I met a guy named Dave Fredericks, on his way back from a summer missions project, who was studying photography at the Illinois Institute of Technology. I was planning to go on to seminary, but I needed a four-year degree first and photography seemed like a good choice. But unfortunately, I neglected my studies. Then, the summer before senior year, I went to Africa on a missions trip and made some wonderful images there--some of my best still. That trip helped me realize that I was much more attuned to photography than I was to ministry. So I got serious my senior year and did really well. My professors were stunned at how fast I progressed. 

When I graduated, I went back to Atlanta and worked as a commercial lab tech and studio assistant until eventually I got an offer from a successful commercial photographer to join him, which I did for ten years. Then I decided to go on my own.

Photography was the thing other people encouraged me to do--to develop the creative part of my character. On the other hand, my father had warned me about how difficult a creative life could be. He practiced medicine but he was actually a poet at heart.

The voice of God has been very clear, though, throughout my career that I am doing what He created me to do. And I love what I do. It took me a long time to realize that. Life in the creative world is open-ended, with advantages and disadvantages, including doubt. But this is what I need to be doing. And photography has changed me. I'm a radical introvert by nature but my job requires me to interact with a lot of people every day when I'm shooting.

I'm drawn to photography because I love the images. I love to make things that surprise me and to imagine what something might look like. When the finished product is something better than I expected, I'm just amazed.

LM: What do you think it means to be an artist and a Christian?

First, I'm a little uncomfortable with the term "artist" because it implies a certain level of achievement that's best judged by someone else. I'm more comfortable with 'creative' or just 'photographer.' To your question, in some ways, being a creative and a Christian can make being a creative a lot more difficult. Most creatives have no rules. A lot of times for them it's just a design project with no real meaning.

For Christians, there's an innate connection to universal meaning. I used to worry: is my work Christian? But simply by my being a Christian, my work has that quality. The better believer I am, the more my work will reflect God's glory. In that way, it's sort of easier to be both, I guess. I'm not as concerned with the outcome. I'm being obedient to God in my work. If that kind of work is commercial, then I'm happy with that. It has made me a better artist than I ever would have been. I love making beautiful things out of nothing. Commercial photography has been much more of an education than you might expect. Because I've had to do it--to deliver the shots within certain parameters--I've learned so much.

And being a commercial photographer has required me to work. I know creatives who can't not do their work, but I'm not like that. I would be happy to sit and read C. S. Lewis and history books forever. But this work has required me to practice. And it has forced me to compete with some of the best creatives out there. There are brilliant, creative photographers today whose work is inspiring in its inventiveness and beauty. Now I am aware of what I believe is some of the best creative work ever done.

Being creative is the way I practice being a believer. It's an act of obedience. I want to do it well to a particular end. Life is now a stewardship project, which is life-affirming. I'm unbelievably grateful that God has given me this gift. I love that I get to be creative. Being creative is a fundamental part of being human.

C. S. Lewis's book The Abolition of Man has a lot to offer creatives. He divides our humanness into three categories: appetite, intellect, and the soul or the heart--the seat of the emotions. Lewis calls it "the chest." His book is a critique of modern ideology. We've done away with the soul. The appetites will always overrule the intellect if not directed by a well trained heart or soul. We've lost the sense of who we are. We've become so material that we see ourselves as only instinct and brain and so have seen our animal appetites overwhelm our intellect.

I want to give people back a spirituality in a world that's very unspiritual. I make things because they are beautiful and that's enough, really. And maybe that's the reason God made beauty--simply for us to enjoy or to remind us who we are.  

More from Phillip Spears on Thursday.

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